A/N: The setting is rural America in 1935 during the Great Depression. For those of you unfamiliar with this time period in American history, do not worry. The connection our two characters share is much more important than the details of the WPA or The Second New Deal. So, with that in mind, simply enjoy this story. Thanks!

Charlynn

Pieces of Dust

Hair astray, dust smudged against her cheek, dress pulled up to rest above her knees, and stockings rolled off and cast carelessly aside, she knew that she did not look like the young lady she was raised to be, but, for once in her life, she didn't want to be James and Julie Cooper's daughter. Instead, she wanted to be herself; she wanted to express herself. She wanted, if only in the solitary company of nature, to realize who Marissa was without the rules of society pressing down upon her and making her feel stifled and subjugated. Sometimes it felt as if she couldn't breathe until she was out of her childhood home and roaming the fields of wild flowers and maple trees that surrounded it, far from both her mother's and her governess' disapproving glares. So, as she sat up high in one of the unwaveringly resolute maple trees, she let the rules that reigned in her spirit go, and imagined a life where she could be the woman she dreamt of becoming, a woman who was respected both for her kindness and generosity but also for her intelligence and contribution to the world, a woman who married for love, raised her own children, and spoke her mind, a woman who was free.

"When I heard the view from this hill here was quite fetchin', this is not what I was expectin' to see."

"Oh my goodness," Marissa squeaked. Surprised by the stranger's voice, a voice soft and gentle in nature but deep and masculine in tone, she lost her balance, slipped from the branch, and surely would have fallen to the ground if it wasn't for a deeply rooted instinct within her that instructed her to reach out and grab hold of the branch she had just been resting on, catching herself with her hands. As she swung back and forth above him, she could hear the young man snickering below. "Well, sir, are you going to help me or not? After all, it is you fault that I nearly just died."

"You might have broken somethin'," he conceded, "but you weren't in any real danger." She could hear his laughter in his voice as he continued. "Now, as far as helpin' you, I'm guessin' I could do that, but the question is how. If I climb on up there to getcha, the branch might break, and I most certainly can't just grab onto your legs and pull you down, so, the ways I see it, that leaves us with one option."

"Would you please just hurry up and do something and quit talking about it?" Wanting to stomp her foot in frustration, the seventeen year old beauty could do nothing but groan in impatience. "Ugh, are all men the same? They discuss things for so long, that, by the time they come up with a solution, a woman has already solved the problem."

"So, you're one of those girls, are you," the stranger asked, positioning himself directly underneath her but keeping his gaze averted so he didn't accidentally look up her dress. "Let go of the tree, and I'll catch you."

"What," Marissa yelped, startled by his suggestion. "You can't…I can't…we can't… Sir, that would not be proper."

"Have it your way," the man agreed, stepping away from both her and the tree and pretending to walk off, "but, seein' as how you're obviously quite a ways away from home, it'll be mighty hard to walk back with a twisted ankle or bum knee."

"Fine," she permited, speaking quickly for she could feel her hands starting to slip. "Just don't do anything unseemly, and do not tell anyone about what you saw or did today."

"Whatever you say," he consented as soon as she landed in his arms.

With her body sliding down against his, their gazes met, her sapphire eyes widening in surprise, and neither of them moved for several moments, the stranger enjoying their close proximity too much to push her away, and Marissa too shocked by what she was feeling to do the proper thing. Looking into his face, she knew she had never met him before, for he was someone she surely would remember. His irises were as blue as the cornflowers she grew in her garden, and, in their mesmerizing depths, she could see his honesty and integrity. His jaw line was rugged and strong, and it made her feel that, with him, nothing bad could ever happen to her. And his lips were firm yet pink and tender, and, for the first time in her life, she wondered what it would be life to kiss someone. Jarring her from her inappropriate thoughts, he cleared his throat, blushed, and looked away embarrassed.

"Thank you," she managed to choke out, swallowing thickly before repeating herself. "Thank you."

"You're quite welcome, Ma'am."

"Please," she found herself smiling bashfully at the stranger, "it's Marissa. After all, you just saved my life. Surely that means we're on a first name basis now."

"Alright then," he agreed readily, surprising her by holding out his hand in greeting and shaking hers. The gesture made the young woman laugh melodically, the sound of her amusement carrying through the air on the mild summer breeze. "My name's Ryan."

"And what brings you here, Ryan," she prompted, leading him back under the tree where they, at the same time, sat down in the grass under the shade. "I've never seen you in town before, so you must be new."

"Well, me being here is just temporary. I'm working to help build the new dam just down the road yonder."

"Oh, so you're a part of the WPA? I read about the new dam project in the newspaper last night." Complimenting him slightly, she added, "it seems like awfully hard work. Are you on a break?"

"Lunch," the young man responded, reaching in his pants' pocket to pull out an apple. "Most of the men go into town, but I like gettin' some peace and quiet. Living in a camp doesn't allow one much privacy."

"And where are you originally from?"

"Kinda all over," Ryan answered, squinting his eyes against the son and tilting his head in thought. "My Pa never could really hold down a job, so he always moved us around a lot, and then, after the crash when he couldn't find any part-time work, he just split, leavin' my Ma with five kids and no husband to help her out. Trey, my older brother, ran off a little while later, so I was left the man of the family. The money I make workin' here goes back to my Ma and my three little sisters." Realizing how much he had admitted, he blushed again, further endearing him to Marissa. "Sorry about me goin' on like that. It's just been a long time since anyone asked about me. It's nice…to have someone care."

Deciding she would ignore his embarrassment and not bring more attention to it, the seventeen year old woman shared some information about herself. "I have sisters, too," she confessed, "two of them. I'm the oldest. Caitlyn's twelve, and my baby sister Sarah is five."

"And are you from this area," he prompted her, apparently wanting to know more.

"Born and raised," Marissa revealed. "My great, great grandfather Cooper actually founded this town," she laughed at the very idea. "He came her from Ireland to raise race horses. Then, when my great grandfather took over the family business, he added the racetrack and the inn. My grandpap was the one who started the saddle company, and my Dad is now simply trying to hold everything together."

"Well, it seems as if you and I couldn't be more different than if we tried," the new arrival to the area realized. Standing up, he made his way to leave.

"Where…where are you going," the young lady asked, jumping up to join him. "You're not leaving because of what I just told you, are you?"

"Nah, it's fine," he reassured her. "I've gotta get back to work, that's all." Stunning her, he reached up and, with this thumb, delicately wiped away the smear of dust upon her cheek. "Perhaps we'll meet again."

And, just as quickly as he had arrived in her life, he vanished, but, in the wake of his presence, he left behind something Marissa would not soon forget – a sense of exhilaration and contentment she had never experienced before.

& ! &

"I was supposed to go to you college, you know?"

They were sitting together a month later like they did every afternoon during Ryan's lunch break. After their first meeting underneath the maple tree, they returned there day after day to see each other, to spend time with one another. After the first week, Marissa had allowed him to hold her hand, after two, he braved the sharpness of her tongue and threw propriety to the wind, kissing her cheek, after three weeks, she had relaxed enough to allow him to hold her in his arms, and, now that it was a full month after they had met, Marissa could privately admit to herself that she was falling in love with the shy, quiet boy with the weight of the world upon his shoulders. She only hoped that being with her helped him escape the pressure of his existence.

"Really? You've never told me about that before." Tightening his embrace around her, Ryan held her closely to him, his head resting upon her right shoulder as they talked. She was sitting between his legs, her back resting against his torso, and, for her, when he held her in his arms, there was nothing that felt more right. It didn't matter that his nails were dirty, that his pants were ripped, and that the soles of his shoes were starting to rip apart; what mattered was that, with him, she felt special, treasured, appreciated, three things her oh so proper and polished family never could make her feel. "Will you tell me about it?"

"Cooper men always go to college, whether it's Yale, Harvard, or Princeton, but, when Daddy realized there wasn't going to be a male heir, he decided that I should get the best education a woman could receive so that I could continue in our family's tradition of the oldest child running the business until my husband could take over for me." A cynical note entered her voice. "Of course, Daddy said it wouldn't be proper for me to maintain control of the company after I marry."

Wanting to distract her from her bitterness, Ryan urged her to continue. "Well, what happened? Why aren't you going?"

"After the crash, my parents decided it was an unnecessary expense. The weekly parties they threw were important enough to continue, my father still ordered my mother's clothes from Paris, and we still maintained full staffs in all three of our homes even if we were only living in one of them, but a woman bettering herself so that she wouldn't be dependent upon her family or her husband to take care of her was suddenly out of the question."

"I'm sorry," he sympathized. "That just don't seem right to me. I've seen what happens to a lady when she has no way of supportin' herself and her children because of my Ma, and that should never happen to you."

"Maybe someday, when the economy stabilizes again, I'll be able to go to college," Marissa shrugged, attempting to dispel her bad mood. "What about you though? Did you ever dream of going to a university and becoming someone influential and important in the world?"

"Truth be told, I never really thought about it before. In my family, we didn't worry about the future; it was always the here and now, stuff like how are we goin' to pay the rent this month or makin' sure there's enough food to go around. College just…didn't seem like an option."

"How about this," she suggested, turning around in his arms to stare deeply into his crystal clear blue eyes. "What if someone came up to you today, promised to take care of your Mom and your sisters for you, and offered to pay for you to go to college. If you could do anything with your life, what would it be?"

"Well, I like buildin' things," Ryan admitted, grinning crookedly. "Our last project was buildin' this city hall down south where a bad storm off the ocean ruined the old one, and that was mighty interestin', seein' how things went together and eventually made somethin' bigger and greater than any one person could do by themselves if they worked their whole life. I think I would want to do that – design those buildin's."

The young woman reached her hand out to rest it upon his cheek, smiling softly to herself when he closed his eyes and leaned into her touch. "I wish you could see your face when you talk like that, see how passionate you are. Someday, Ryan, I know you will do what you dream of; someday, you will be an architect, and those buildings you design will be some of the most beautiful ones in America."

"Why do you believe in me so much?"

"Because I know the man inside of you," she answered as sincerely as she could. "I see him shining in your eyes, I feel him when he holds me, and I can sense him when you kiss me." Fidgeting with her admission, she looked down into her lap before joining their hands together and continuing. "No one could make me feel as special as you do and not be special themselves. You make me feel as if I can do anything in this world as long as you have faith in me, and you could only give me that reassurance if you had an even more special greatness inside of you."

"Lookin' at you, holdin' you in my arms, kissin' you," he confessed, "makes me want to be those things you say I am."

Leaning in, she joined their lips together briefly before pulling away and smiling adoringly at him. "You already are." A comfortable quiet settled down between them, and he turned her around in his arms so that her back was resting against his chest once again. "I want to ask you something, but I don't want it to come out wrong or sound rude."

"You can ask me anythin'," he promised her, nuzzling her neck, "anythin' at all."

"The way you talk," Marissa started before pausing and regrouping her thoughts. "I know you've had a rough life, that growing up things weren't easy for you, but the things you say, the way you see the world and understand both people and situations…"

"Where did it come from if I didn't graduate from high school or go to college," he finished for, chuckling softly as the way she had been struggling to ask her question without offending him. "I managed to learn to read pretty well and come to understand basic math skills before I had to quit school, and, since then, whenever I get a chance to read more, whether it's an old, worn novel, a yellowed newspaper, or even a pamphlet, I take it. I figured any knowledge is better than none."

"I like to read, too," she shared, snuggling deeper into his embrace. "Books allow me to experience situations and lifestyles that will never be possible for me in my life. They've shown me what it takes for someone to be a hero, what it's like to struggle with adversity and still succeed, and they've shown me what true love is so that I can recognize it in my own life."

"Bein' with you," Ryan whispered into her ear, "has done all those things for me."

For the rest of their time together that afternoon, no other words were necessary.

& ! &

She knew she should have stayed; she should have stayed to make sure that Caitlyn didn't side with their mother and say cruel things to their father, she should have stayed to make sure that nothing irreparable was broken between her parents, and she should have stayed to make sure that Sarah wasn't scared by all the shouting and crying, but she just couldn't, not again. So, instead, she ran. She ran with only her thin nightgown on and a shawl wrapped around her chilled frame to the only place she found any peace and hoped that he was there to comfort and reassure her.

Although, why would he be? It was past dark, and he would have to be up early the next morning to go to work. He didn't have the luxury of sleeping in, of having servants who would warm breakfast up and carry it to his room if he missed the meal, of being able to pause in the middle of the day to take a nap if he was tired. His life was a constant physical strain, and the only times he got to unwind was when they met for lunch in the afternoon and at night when he slept. So, unless he was capable of sensing her anguish, – and even Marissa knew such romantic notions were just in the novels she liked to lose herself in – then he wasn't going to be there.

She finally stopped running when she reached their tree. Physically tired and emotionally exhausted, she collapsed onto the ground and folded her body into itself as if seeking the solace his arms usually brought her, not caring that dew on the grass was soaking through her nightgown and would eventually make her even colder. Tears flowed rapidly down her face, and the sheer force of her sobs loosened the tight, French braid her long, golden hair was tied back in, making shorter strands escape to tickle her exposed skin and float against the cool night air. Even in her despondent frame of mind, she was still absolutely beautiful to the eye, glowing under the silver light of the moon.

"Who's there?"

She froze; the tears stopped. That wasn't planned, that wasn't supposed to happen. No one was supposed to know about this special spot, only her and Ryan, but the voice had been too far away to hear properly, and she was too depressed to even hope that the new arrival was the man she was in love with.

"Are you alright," the man asked. She could hear him moving closer, and, for reasons she could not explain, her heart started pounding heavily in her chest. "I thought I heard a lady cryin'."

And then she knew. Sitting up, she smiled in his direction, and the tears that started flowing down her porcelain face, once again, were, this time, tears of joy and relief. "Ryan!"

He froze momentarily, shocked that she was there, but, in a matter of mere seconds, he recovered and was at her side, kneeling down in the grass before she could say anything else. "Hey," he cupped her face, immediately using the pads of his thumbs to dry her tears. "Honey, what's wrong? Why are you upset? Who did this to you?"

"I can't believe you're here. I came here wanting to be close to you, but I never thought…"

"I'm here almost every night," he revealed, grinning sheepishly while rearranging them so that, as always, she was sitting in his lap so he could hold her in his arms. "Sometimes I just come here to think, but, most of the time, I bring the books you lend me and a lantern and sit out here readin' and thinkin' of you. It's much nicer to sleep under the stars than to stay in the camp."

"Could you turn the lantern on," she asked sheepishly. "I really don't like the dark that much."

"And yet you came out here all by yourself," Ryan teased, chuckling but doing as she asked. Soon there was a soft, warm glow of light surrounding them.

"I guess I was so upset, I didn't even think about it." Sighing, she picked his left hand up and held it to her lips, kissing it tenderly. "I wish I would have known that you were here every night. I would have snuck out and come to visit you."

"Well, you're here now," the young man stated as he ran a soothing hand across her brow. The motion, over and over again, was hypnotic and lulled her into a sense of ease. "Can you tell me why you were so upset?"

"It's my parents," Marissa answered, her tone immediately losing its sense of pleasure as she recalled the night she had had. "Something happened, something big, but I don't know what it is. All I know is that my Mom has been screaming at my Dad all night, and he doesn't even fight back; he just sits there and cries, apologizing to her. I did hear some of the things she was yelling though. She kept talking about her reputation and how whatever my father did was going to make it difficult for her daughters to marry well." Biting her lip to hold back another sob, she whispered, "she threatened to leave."

"Do you think that maybe," she could hear the hesitant nature of his tone, "your Dad had an affair?"

"No," the seventeen year old lady replied quickly and easily. "Sometimes I don't understand why, but my Dad loves my Mom. He would never do that to her. Now, my Mom on the other hand…"

Ryan couldn't contain his chuckle. "She would?"

"Oh, there's not a doubt in my mind…if she's hasn't already, especially if the man was wealthier than Daddy."

"Maybe that's what's it's about then," he suggested. "Could your father be broke?"

"I guess so," she answered, unsure. "He doesn't really tell me anything like that though, but it would make sense. I know that he lost a lot of money after the crash, but, because of the businesses, I thought we were fine." As realization set in, she spoke quickly. "But, with the way my parents spend money, throwing it away carelessly on foolish things like designer dresses and Cuban cigars, and with the way no one has been able to afford to go on vacation or to buy expensive saddles or go to the races to bet on horses, there has to be more money going out than there is coming in." The young woman sat up straight, panicking. "Oh my god, what's going to happen to Caitlyn and Sarah? This can't be happening to them."

"Hey, I'm a little more concerned about you," he said as he pulled her back into his arms and held her closely once again, "mainly because you're the oldest. You don't think that they'd…"

"Force me to marry someone? They might try," Marissa conceded, "but I won't agree to it. I don't care if I have to work two…three jobs to make sure my baby sisters are fed and clothed, I refuse to marry someone I don't love, especially since," she revealed, turning around in his embrace and staring deeply into his eyes, "I'm in love with you." A palpable, painful silence filled the air. Suddenly embarrassed and nervous, she blushed and tried to turn away from him. "It's okay if you don't feel the same way."

"Oh, honey, no, no," Ryan instantly reassured her. "You…you make my life worth livin'. When I think about you, I smile; when I go to sleep at night, the first thing I see when I close my eyes is you." Leaning his forehead against her, he kissed her softly, adoringly before whispering, "I love you, too." She sighed blissfully; he sighed wearily. "I was comin' to see you tomorrow mornin', properly, at your house. There's somethin' important I have to tell you." Pausing to swallow thickly, he closed his eyes, unable to confess his news when her beautiful, sapphire irises were watching him with such tenderness and adoration so openly expressed. "I'm leavin'."

"No," the seventeen year old shouted, instantaneously bursting into tears, tears more painful and wretched than she had ever cried before. Clutching him to her tightly, she sobbed, "no, no, no, Ryan, you can't; you can't leave me."

"I just found out this afternoon. There's a buildin' in Texas that they're working on, and I guess the foreman at my last project put in a good word for me, so they want me to help with this buildin', too."

"It's what you want to do," she hiccupped, pulling away from his chest to gaze into his eyes. "It's a chance for you."

"But it doesn't matter if you're not there with me," he argued, becoming frustrated and upset as well. "I told 'em that I wouldn't do it, that I wouldn't leave, but they said that it's not a request; it's an order."

In an attempt to compose herself, Marissa reached a hand up to wipe the tears from her eyes, but he brushed her hand away, savoring the task and doing it himself. "How much time do we have? A month? A week?"

"I leave tomorrow at one."

"Tomorrow," she gasped, the crystal, saline drops of emotion instantly pooling in her deep orbs of blue again. "So this is goodbye?"

"Well, I hope not," he responded. "I mean, it's only temporary, right? We'll see each other again."

To that, the young woman didn't know how to respond. Life changed so quickly that it was impossible to see into the future or really plan for anything. Fate had a way of stepping in and altering one's life so quickly, the dreams just borne the day before would be obliterated only to disappear and never be thought of again. Did she hope and pray that she and Ryan would see each other again and soon, of course, but she was too much of a realist to hold out hope. So, instead of settling for the dream of tomorrow, she decided to take the here and now and make the most of every opportunity life gave her, starting in that moment.

Without a word, Marissa stood up from his lap and let her shawl fall to the ground. With their gazes locked together, neither of them willing to even blink, she slowly started to unbutton the high neck of her long, white nightgown. Still undressing, she watched him, his face awestruck and reverent. With every last clasp undone, she let her gown slip down from her shoulders to pool at her feet, exposing herself, her nude body, and her vulnerability to him. Never before had she ever felt more beautiful or more feminine.

"Make love to me, Ryan," she pleaded, moving to lower her body next to his.

It took him several moments and quite a few thick, awkward intakes of breath to respond. "Aw, honey, we can't."

"Yes, we can," she argued. "I know that according to my mother and the rest of the world it would be wrong, but to me," she took his hand and placed it over her rapidly beating heart, "here," she told him, "it feels right; it feels perfect. I want to be with you, mind, body, and soul."

Unable to resist her or the words she spoke, he leaned down and captured her mouth with his. Unlike all the other kisses they shared over the summer, this one was insistent and passionate and erotic, and she gasped when her lips seemed to open on their own volition and Ryan's tongue slid over hers.

Wrenching their mouths apart, he watched her as her body trembled, and, drawn to her like a moth to the flame, he let his right hand trail up and down her body, his fingertips whispering against her silky smooth skin from her shoulder to her hip. Marissa shivered when his calloused digits brushed past her quivering breasts. "We can't," he finally said, "because, when I make love you to for the first time, I want you to be my wife." Puckering her brow in confusion, she silently asked for him to say more. "Come away with me," he begged, joining their hands together in an intimate embrace, their fingers wrapping around each other and twining tightly. "Pack a small bag, meet me at the train station at one tomorrow, and come away with me. I don't know how we'll make this work, and I know that it's crazy, but I need you."

"I need you, too," she murmured on a pleasurable sigh, "so much." Lifting herself up on her elbows, she took his mouth, and, as they kissed openly and confidently for the second time that night, she let her tongue slide in between his lips to blend their palettes together as one. Breathless and still needing to answer him, she pulled away and leaned her forehead against his, their intense, deliriously aroused gazes locked together. "Yes," Marissa whispered, "I'll go away with you."

Surprising her, he smiled and then started to get undressed. Silently, she watched, enjoying each reveal of his bronzed, muscled form. Once he was completely nude as well, he laid down in the wet grass and moved her so that she was resting directly on top of him. Although they didn't make love that night, they kissed and touched and explored each others body as they made plans for the next day and for the rest of their lives together. It was singularly the most exciting and wonderful moment of her life. Wrapped up in Ryan's arms, the heat from his body keeping her warm, she fell asleep under the stars knowing that, with the sun's light, the next day was bringing her everything she had ever wanted and more.

& ! &

It was strange the difference a few hours of a person's life could bring. When she woke up the day before, Marissa couldn't think past meeting Ryan for lunch, but then here entire world fell apart only to be rebuilt in a way she would never have been able to foresee. Her father lost everything, her mother left him, her sister's futures were left up in the air, and the man she loved was being transferred far away from the place they had met. Looking out the train window, she watched as the only home she had known sailed past her, disappearing too quickly for her to memorized it one last time. Despite her best efforts, a solitary tear escaped past her red rimmed and swollen eyes.

"Hey, kiddo," the man beside her attempted to console her, wrapping his free arm around her shoulder in a comforting hug, "I know things seem bad now, but they'll get better soon. We'll figure this out, I promise."

She turned to face him, too miserable to care that he would be able to see just how upset she was.

"Are you crying?" His face fell, regret, sadness, and depression evident in the lines marring his kind features, lines she knew had not been there twenty-four hours earlier. And suddenly she knew that not only did she have to protect her baby sisters, but she would have to protect the man sitting beside her. He wasn't strong enough to deal with the changes occurring in their life. Just as Ryan had sacrificed his own happiness to make sure that his Mom and three little sisters were safe and cared for, she would do the same for her father and her two siblings.

"No, Daddy," she reassured him, plastering on a fake smile, "it was just a piece of dust."